Andrew Caringi

Negotiations between the City University of New York and its faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), came to an abrupt halt on 26 January after university management filed for an impasse, calling for an end to bargaining sessions exactly one year after the two sides first opened up talks. The fate of the five-year contract dispute now rests with the State Public Employment Relations Board, which is currently reviewing the university’s request for the state to appoint a mediator to resolve the negotiations. “The parties have reached an impasse which they cannot resolve without the assistance of the Board,” wrote general counsel Frederick Schaffer, in a petition filed on 26 January on behalf of CUNY management.

CUNY’s first and only offer, a six percent raise over six years, was quickly rejected by PSC leadership, who argued that the proposed contract would essentially amount to a pay cut. “The real issue in this contract is not mediation; it’s money,” wrote PSC President Barbara Bowen in an email to her roughly 25,000 members. “What CUNY management should be doing instead of slowing down negotiations with a declaration of impasse is working with the PSC to secure the funds necessary for decent raises.” CUNY professors and staff have gone six years without a raise since their last contract expired in October 2010, and while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is willing to fund raises for CUNY professors and staff, he will only do so at the same economic level as the city’s other union contract. With 83 percent of the city’s unions under contract, PSC is left as the largest union in New York City without a contract. To meet PSC’s demands, the state would have to provide extra funding for wage increases.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s latest proposal of $240 million towards retroactive raises for CUNY employees is a step in that direction, but it comes at a cost. In order to secure funds for employee raises, Cuomo has also proposed shifting one third of the state’s commitment to CUNY onto the city budget, roughly $485 million. “The proposal for investment in CUNY employee contracts was linked to a proposal for a massive, unprecedented and unjustified cut in senior college funding,” said Bowen in a recent State Budget Testimony. “Such disinvestment is inexcusable in a state with a healthy budget surplus.”

Since their last contract expired in 2010, full-time CUNY professors have been earning a base salary of $68,803, which is $10,000 more than SUNY professors currently make under their union’s contract.

“When you count inflation, our wages have actually gone down,” says associate professor Steve London, 66, who’s worked 30-years at Brooklyn College. “Professors have to get housing two hours away from campus in order to live.”

For CUNY’s 13,000 part-time professors, the proposed cut in state funding could have a drastic impact on their already strained budgets. “There’s a lot of adjuncts who are carving out a big chunk of their living out of their classes,” says Michael Batson, a long-time adjunct professor at the College of Staten Island. “And that’s the first place college presidents are going to go when they are forced to make cuts, right to the adjunct budget.” Batson, who worked closely with union leadership in bargaining sessions, believes that Bowen and her team will continue to fight for his best interests, even if that means calling a union-wide strike. “Adjuncts are a little bit more nervous [of a strike] because they lack the job security,” says Batson. “But adjuncts aren’t going to win anything unless we’re able to bring all the power that we can to bear in this process. There is safety in numbers. If 10,000 adjuncts are out, they can’t fire 10,000 adjuncts.” Under the state’s current Taylor Law, employees who strike are penalized two days pay for each day they refuse to work. “In general [a strike] would be a greater hardship for adjuncts because so many adjuncts are living on such low pay,” says Batson. “But I have not run into an adjunct yet who has said that they don’t agree with the strike authorization vote.” Batson, who is now in his fifteenth year at CUNY, voted in favor of giving union leadership the power to call a strike if necessary.

Despite the halt in negotiations, Bowen and her executive council have yet to hold a strike authorization vote. “The union will negotiate with every drop of energy we have, and we will do everything we can to achieve a fair contract without a strike,” Bowen told her members. “But we cannot and will not apologize for organizing our membership to stand up for what we deserve.” Though publicly supporting de Blasio in the 2014 mayoral election, Bowen has failed to secure a contract under the new union-friendly administration. Published on the PSC website is Bowen’s endorsement from 2013. “We support Bill de Blasio because he stands for an alternative to the politics of austerity that have dominated New York for too long.” Now more than a year into negotiations with the de Blasio administration, Bowen has yet to find her alternative. “The bad guy is an economy, an economic agenda that imposes austerity on working people, while enriching at unbelievable levels the richest one percent,” says Bowen. “The bad guy is economic austerity politics and the corporate and finance and political interests that support them.”

While it has never been quite this bad, in her fifteen-year presidency Bowen has faced a number of issues surrounding public funding. For ten years Bowen and her staff fought for a new health plan for adjunct professors, which was previously funded solely by the union. As union funds depleted, Bowen managed an agreement with the city and state to provide additional funding for a new health insurance policy. Perhaps the union’s biggest victory under Bowen, the new health insurance only applies to adjuncts that teach two consecutive semesters, a practice that will become less common as CUNY colleges are forced to cut budgets this year. “We’re trying to remedy that,” says Bowen. “And get continuity for several thousand of the adjunct faculty, the ones who are longest serving, or most consistently serving at CUNY, so that there will be that kind of continuity for students as well.”

For professors like Deborah Gambs, who now has a roommate in her studio apartment because she can’t afford her rent increases, a new contract would help them afford the increasing costs of living in New York City. “There are a lot of people in New York City that have multiple people living in very small apartments. But I’m a full-time professor with tenure,” says Gambs, 41, who has been an assistant professor at BMCC for seven years. “I call them every time they raise my rent and I say to them, ‘I work for a public employer, I haven’t received a raise, could you raise my rent by less.’” Despite getting her recent rent hike of $70 reduced to $45 last year, Gambs continues to struggle financially as her student loan payments burden her already stretched budget. “Since I’ve had the chance to observe some negotiation sessions, I can see that Bowen and the union leadership are doing a good job,” says Gambs. “But as a person who is on the other end of things, where I’m sitting here in my studio apartment with a roommate and no salary raise, it has felt too slow.”

Responding to her constituents’ pressure for a new contract, Bowen has brought her union out onto the streets, protesting both the CUNY administration and Cuomo over the five-year contract dispute. “People are still going to support us,” says Bowen. “Sure they express frustration, but they look around and see in other places where there’s been a very effective challenge to austerity politics, especially in public education such as in Chicago and Seattle. It has worked because people have stuck together.” Bowen will be leading her union in a mass rally and march through midtown Manhattan on 10 March. Their first stop will be at Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office. “We’re prepared to escalate, and escalate and escalate,” says Bowen.